Wang Wei 699?–761?
(Also called Wang Mo-ch'i). Chinese poet.
The poet-painter Wang Wei is ranked among the most illustrious men of arts and letters from the Tang dynasty, one of the great golden ages of Chinese cultural history. Traditionally viewed as the father of monochrome landscape painting (the Southern School), Wang is also recog nized as one of the few poets, along with the highly re vered T'ang poets Li Po and Tu Fu, to master the art of "lyric poetry" (shih). Wang's poems, chiefly characterized by their meditative symbolism and graceful simplicity, exemplified his belief that poetry and painting were mirrors of one another, each medium was meant to emulate and reflect the beauty of the other. Although a distinguished court poet, Wang is most widely regarded for his nature poems, a body of verse that explores the edifying beauty of the natural world.
Wang was born to a powerful noble family in Ch'i-hsien, located in Shansi Province. His family had a tradition of government service, and he counted thirteen prime ministers among his ancestors. Wang was well educated as befitted a future courtier, and he excelled in poetry, music, and art. Indeed, his remarkable poetic abilities were apparent as early as the age of nine. Wang easily passed the government examinations and, at the age of 21, received the prestigious chin-shih ("advanced scholar") degree in the imperial civil-service examination system. This "doctoral" degree was principally based on his musical skill. After passing the examination, Wang was appointed Assistant Director of the Imperial Directorate of Music. This was the first of what was to be many government appointments. Wang pursued an unremarkable career in the service of the imperial government, serving in various official capacities and suffering professional setbacks due to political upheaval. During the An Lu-shan Rebellion, Wang was captured and forced to serve the rebel administration. The intercession of his high-ranking brother Wang Chin, together with the contents of a poem Wang composed while imprisoned by the rebel forces, helped save him from charges of collaboration with the enemy when imperial forces recaptured the capital at Ch'ang-an. Wang's later years were overshadowed by disillusionment and sadness following the deaths of his wife and his mother. He died while serving in the Department of State in his early sixties.
Wang Wei's undistinguished official career was frequently interspersed with periods of seclusion in the grounds of his private villa at Wan Ch'uan (Wang River), where he sought respite from the intrigue, corruption, and uncertainty of court life. The poems he composed while studying Buddhism and meditating in the quiet of nature reveal his love for landscape and country living together with his longing for peace and seclusion. The outward simplicity of his poems' imagery belies the profoundly metaphysical nature of the underlying concepts, that of man's place in nature and the pursuit of enlightenment through denial and retreat from the world. It has been argued that much of the conflict in Wang Wei's life and poetry springs from the contrary inclinations resulting from the dual influence of Confucianism, which urges political ambition, and Taoism, which teaches quiet meditation and a passive attitude regarding events in the physical world.
Of the 420 poems in Wang Wei's canon, there are approximately 370 poems that can be genuinely attributed to him. The style of the poems is simple and uncomplicated, and the underlying feelings are those of tranquility and detachment. The poems fall into three general categories: court poems that capture a vignette of life in the Imperial court, Buddhist themes and images, and nature scenes stripped of all ornament. The poems in this last category are his most famous, and include the Wangch'uan chi (Felly River Collection), a twenty-quatrain poem describing his country villa. Other well-known poems include "Answering Magistrate Chang," an example of a court poem, and Wang's "Deer Park," one of the most-often-anthologized Chinese poems, frequently cited as an archetypal nature poem. Wang's poetry is considered in the same league as Tu Fu and Li Po, the great T'ang lyric poets. While it lacks exuberance of Li Po or the controlled intellectuality of Tu Fu, Wang's poetry fuses literature and art with nature in the most simple and placid language.
Despite Wang Wei's popularity in China and the West, he has been the subject of very few critical studies in any language. Some critics speculate that the primary reason for this neglect is that the apparent simplicity of much of Wang's poetry obscures the disconcertingly elusive philosophical premises from which Wang draws his inspiration, and the complexity of these ideas discourages penetrating analysis of his poetry. Despite the paucity of critical analysis concerning his poetry, Wang Wei remains one of the most translatable and widely translated of Chinese poets. Indeed, Wang Wei's poetry can be found in nearly every anthology of Chinese poetry available.